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A criterium, or crit, is a bike race held on a short course (usually less than 1 mile), often run on closed-off city center streets.
Race length can be determined by a number of laps or total time, in which case the number of remaining laps is calculated as the race progresses. Generally the event's duration (commonly one hour) is shorter than that of a traditional road race — which can last many hours, sometimes over the course of several days or even weeks, as in a Grand Tour. However, the average speed and intensity are appreciably higher. The winner is the first rider to cross the finish line without having been "lapped."
Events often have prizes (called primes, pronounced "preems", and are usually cash) for winning specific intermediate laps (for instance, every 10th lap). A bell is usually rung to announce to the riders that whoever wins the next lap, wins the prime.
Success in road criteriums requires a mix of good technical skills — in particular, the ability to corner smoothly while "holding your line" on the road, as well as rapidly and sharply — and riding safely with a large group on a short circuit and exceptional "sprint" ability to attack other riders and repeatedly accelerate hard from corners.
Criteriums are relatively easy to organize, do not require a large amount of space, and are good for live spectators as they allow them to see the riders pass by many times. They are the most common type of bicycle racing in the continental United States. They are also gaining popularity as a format for mountain bike events.
Flanders (Belgium) hosts a number of criteriums, as does the Netherlands. The most notable of these are held just after the Tour de France. However, criteriums in Europe are mostly held in the format of a points-race. First, second, and third rider at every 5th lap gets 3, 2, 1 points respectively (with double points at final endsprint). It was a long tradition that after the Tour these criteriums were fixed to have favourable results for local favorites, who may be participating for show after having ridden in a larger race (for example, the Tour de France).
What goes down?...In the early laps, when the pace is not so high, they will let a local favourite go to please the crowd. Meanwhile, the rest of the peloton will grimace in pain as though they are giving it everything to chase the local rider down, eventually succeeding at a (perceived) huge cost of energy. These guys can ride criteriums at over 50 km/h if they want, so the speed doesn't have to be that low to make it look good for the public.
Racing bicycles used for criteriums are typically no different than those used in other mass-start road events. However, some criterium racers will choose bicycles with:
- a wheelbase shortened as much as possible, for increased turning ability, with the shortest chainstays possible, and a slightly shortened top tube (often causing some toe overlap with the front wheel on smaller frame sizes).
- forks with increased rake to reduce trail. Bikes with reduced trail handle more responsively, albeit at the cost of stability.
- slightly shorter cranks (167.5-170 mm), often slightly higher bottom bracket (+10 mm) to facilitate pedaling through turns without hitting or scraping the pedals on the ground.
- Aerodynamic wheels. Crits are high speed events with pro races often averaging up to 50 km/h (31 mph), making aerodynamics a large factor, even in the pack.
Within the UK, Elite and Cat 1+2 riders generally race together and Cat 3+4+W separately; however individual events will vary.
Within the USA, the Men's Field (Pro + Cat 1 + Cat 2, and sometimes Cat 3) generally race together, Cat 3's often have their own races, and Cat 4/5 Men race together; however, certain states (e.g. Colorado) do not offer Cat 5 due to a limited number of participants. so Cat 4's will have their own races. In addition, there are a variety of masters categories which can be raced. The Women typically have two separate races, the P/1/2 (3) and the 3/4.
Collegiate racing in the USA is sanctioned by USA Cycling (UCSF) and consists of three categories: A, B, C, and D. Category A is equivalent to the P-1-2-3 field, category B is equivalent to the Cat 3-4 field, category C is equivalent to Cat 4/5, and D is equivalent to Cat 5. Thus, collegiate criteriums are organized accordingly.
The races will also vary depending upon how many people from separate teams enter, which will impact whether it will be a "free-for-all" or a team-focused event.
Further reading 
- "Smart Cycling: Successful Training and Racing for Riders of All Levels" by Arnie Baker (ISBN 0-684-82243-1)
To view a criterium in its entirety (split screen forward and aft perspective with embedded speed, wattage, and cadence data) see: http://myworldfromabicycle.blogspot.com/2011/02/this-american-bicycle-race.html
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